How can the government best support parents when they need it most?
Published: 13 Jan 2021
By Julia Waltham, Joint Head of Policy & Influencing at Working Families.
Here at Working Families, we are striving to achieve the kind of labour market this government perceives already exists: where workers have the autonomy to work remotely and flex their hours (helpful when childcare arrangements break down) and—where they can’t—understanding employers doing everything possible to ensure that parents struggling with childcare are kept in their jobs.
The COVID juggling act
We sometimes wish the Ministers responsible for protecting jobs could spend an hour taking calls from parents getting in touch with our Legal Advice Service. As was the case in the first lockdown, many parents simply cannot work now that schools have closed—either because their childcare and home-schooling responsibilities are too great, or because they cannot work from home. We’re having to tell parents with unsympathetic employers in these situations—again—that unfortunately, furlough is at their employers’ discretion and while, they are entitled to emergency leave, it’s unpaid (and not very long).
Since the onset of the pandemic, our view has always been that parents should be supported by their employer to continue to work where possible. With 13 million working parents in the UK, this is key to our economy functioning. Many parents have been able to keep working during school closures, but the factors enabling them to do so have been some scope to flex their hours and—crucially—being able to work from home.
Furlough: challenges and benefits
Of course, this situation is very far from ideal, with parents feeling simultaneously guilty to their employer (for taking time out to care for and home-school their children) and their children (for taking time away from them, for work). For these parents, however, spinning plates may be preferable to initiating a conversation with their employer about furlough, which might mean they appear uncommitted (our outdated ‘presenteeism’ culture persists even in some of the most progressive workplaces).
For others, furlough has been a lifeline since schools closed, particularly for working single parents and parents who can’t work from home—not least because it is paid at near salary replacement levels. But unfortunately, while the guidance allows for employers to furlough for childcare reasons, we are hearing from dozens of parents who aren’t being given that option. This is why the case for a statutory right to furlough, mooted recently by Sir Keir Starmer, is persuasive. In the meantime, the government must be clearer that parents who can’t work—because their job can’t be done from home or because they are a single parent with very young children, for example—must be given the option to furlough some or all of their hours by their employer.
The case for paid emergency parental leave
But we must remember that the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (under which workers can be ‘furloughed’) won’t last forever. The wider issue is that there is currently no statutory paid leave entitlement parents can fall back on when, for example, their childcare arrangements unravel unexpectedly. While many parents can work remotely and/or flex their hours when dealing with childcare emergencies, the sad truth is that parents with poor employers often have no choice but to take unpaid leave or lose their jobs—as we’ve learned all too well during the pandemic.
All parents—including those in low paid, insecure work classified as workers—must have access to a paid leave entitlement of at least ten days that can be used in emergencies, with the right to return to their job. The government should urgently introduce this so that parents with poor employers won’t lose sleep when, for example, they find out schools are closing with 24 hours’ notice, because there’s a paid leave entitlement they can realistically use. This government needs to go further to protect jobs. Continuing to rely on the goodwill of employers—as this government is doing—is throwing swathes of parents under the bus.
For more information about your flexible working rights as a parent/carer, call the Working Families helpline on 0300 012 0312 or use our advice contact form. You can also read information relating to COVID-19 and employment on our website.
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